San Mateo County: DiRT Team Travels Neighborhoods Warning Everyone to Call 811 before Digging

MENLO PARK — PG&E’s Charley Adams noticed a three-man construction team that had nearly finished assembling a wooden fence surrounding a home on a quiet street in this San Mateo County city.

The fence looked to be well built but there was one problem: The company never had the ground marked to indicate where gas pipelines are buried.

Had the crew struck a gas line, there could have been injuries, damages or worse.

The crew foreman told Adams he knew about 811, the number that everyone should call two days before any digging project to have PG&E and other utilities mark the location of their underground lines. And yet he didn’t bother to do that.

“He just thought he was replacing the old fence and using the same holes for the posts,” Adams said.

But as Adams explained, gas lines can be closer to the surface than anyone realizes (he recently discovered a pipeline just 3 inches below the surface). Or in this case the gas line could have been wrapped around concrete from the previous fence post. Unless you call 811 you just don’t know.

Outreach helping reduce dig-ins

Adams is one of about 20 members of PG&E’s Dig-In Reduction Team, begun last year, to combat the growing safety risks of construction crews and homeowners striking gas pipelines. Thanks to PG&E’s stepped-up efforts, the number of dig-ins fell by 13 percent from 2014 to 2015 when there were 1,600 such incidents.

The team members have backgrounds in inspections. That’s ideal for a job like this, said Jorge Gil-Blanco, who heads the team.

“We know how to do investigations,” Gil-Blanco said.

And they’ve heard it all. Contractors don’t want to fall behind in their schedule. They don’t think they’re digging deep enough to make contact with a gas line. Or, they say, they’ve never had an accident.

“All it takes is that one time,” Gil-Blanco said.

Gil-Blanco’s team works with PG&E helicopter patrols that root out unsafe digging practices. And the team collaborates with PG&E employees who locate and mark the location of PG&E’s pipelines.

That happened as Adams was making his rounds in San Mateo County on Monday (April 4) during National Safe Digging Month. A locate-and-mark team heard jackhammering coming from the patio of a home and noticed there were no tell-tale yellow marks on the ground, indicating 811 hadn’t been called. They texted the information to Adams, who investigated and had the job put on hold.

Jobs without 811 calls can lead to fines, revoked licenses

During his stop at the Menlo Park home where the fence was being built, Adams filled out a notice of unsafe excavation. Contractors who repeatedly fail to call 811 can be fined or even have their licenses revoked by the state. He issues as many as six of these notices every day.

He then gave the foreman a small handbook from USA North 811 detailing California’s excavation law. He told him of PG&E’s safe digging tips. And he handed him an invitation to attend a free 811 Call Before You Dig workshop in San Carlos later this month.

Most violators heed the safety warning. But Adams, who worked 30 years for the Campbell Police Department, said he doesn’t like to play the heavy.

“I look at it more as a teaching job than an enforcement job,” said Adams, who added that third party contractors are starting to get the message but many homeowners still don’t know to call 811.

Most, like the fence contractor in Menlo Park, understand and are simply unaware or unsure of the law. In fact, the crew foreman promised to follow the law going forward.

“From now on that’s what I’m going to do,” he told Adams.

And then, unprompted, he added: “It keeps everybody safe.”

For at least this construction professional, PG&E’s safety message seemed to resonate.

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